Did you know that only about 20% of Americans own a passport? This number may be on the rise, but it's only because Americans are now required to show a passport when visiting Mexico, Canada, and parts of the Caribbean. The number of Americans who have traveled overseas, however, has been on the decline since 2006 (Source: OTTI). So while more of us have our passports, Americans are still not traveling abroad. We are still shunning the rest of the world. We have no new love of travel just because we now have passports. So why is it that America turns a blind eye to the rest of the planet and staying home?
I believe there are a few reasons:
First, America is huge. It is a well-known fact that the majority of American families go on vacation in other parts of America. Why? For one, the U.S.A. is not only massive but it also shelters a diverse range of environments. If you're looking for a beach vacation, go to Florida. If you want the tropics, go to Hawaii. How about the desert? You'll find it in Arizona. Visit Alaska's frozen tundra or temperate forests in Washington. This attitude is best summed up by a response I got from a friend in Iowa, who said, "Why would you want to go to Thailand? It's far away and scary. If you want beaches, just go to Florida." Americans simply don't see the need to go anywhere else when they can do it all in their own backyard.
But is geography a valid reason? Not really. If geography played a role in determining where people travel, no one would ever travel. Everything would be too far. Yet New Zealand is in the middle of nowhere and how many more Kiwis do you meet traveling than Americans? How many more Aussies? Tons. These countries are far away from everything. Outside of each other, it's a 6 hour trip to somewhere and if you go across the Pacific, it's 15 hours. The world is much farther away from them than it is us. Yet they travel. We don't. Size doesn't matter.
It's not that America's size makes travel prohibitive, its size is important because people feel there is no reason to leave. We don't need to travel to "big, scary places" when we have deserts, tropical islands, mountains, endless summer, wilderness, snow, and more. Every landscape can be found within America's borders. You can have everything you want here. When you feel this way, you aren't going to travel.
Which brings me to my second point: Fear. I think most Americans are scared of the world and when they see they have everything around here, it only reinforces their perception they don't need to go overseas. Just take a look at the recent election and you'll see what I mean. Sharron Angle warns of Sharia Law. The Chinese are to blame for all our problems. Mexicans are stealing our jobs. And the ground zero mosque, which is really a community center, is just a secret way for Al Qaeda to enter the country. Paranoia runs deep in this land. In this post-9/11 world, Americans have been taught that the world is a big, scary place. There are terrorists outside every hotel waiting to kidnap you. People don't like you because you are American. The world is violent. It's poor. It's dirty. It's savage. Canada and Europe are O.K., but if you go there, they will still be rude to you because you are American. No one likes Americans, right?.
Even before 9/11, the media created an environment of fear. In news, if it bleeds, it leads right? Prior to 9/11, the media played up violence at home and abroad. Pictures of riots in foreign streets, threats against Americans, and general violence were all played up to portray a violent and unsafe world. After, 9/11, it only got worse. Politicians now tell us, "they hate you" in the same way that former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani did during his campaign. It's US vs. THEM! And the media still perpetuates this idea.
Politicians and media paint the world as a scary place, filled with crime, hate, terrorists. Bill O'Reilly, a man who clearly has never been to Amsterdam, has called that city a cesspool. (Twice!) We are constantly told that there is anti-Americanism in the world -- wherever you go, people will dislike you. (This is a fallacy that is rarely disproven in the media). Moreover, America's hegemony since WW2 has ensured that we have been the dominant force in the world. Despite the rise of China, Brazil, and India, our politicians tell us everything in America is the best (yet we are #38 in health care). Countries will always do what they want. America is the leader. It is the city upon a hill. Yada. Yada. Yada. When you think you are the best, why go to "godforsaken" countries where they hate you for being American, are cesspool, and you might get robbed? Bombarded by this "news" and "facts" for decades, Americans think this myth is reality and don't want to leave the states. It's no wonder that when I tell my older friends and relatives I am going to Central America, they still think of the dangerous 80s and tell me to watch out for the Sandinistas.
Finally, I think Americans don't travel overseas because of cultural ignorance. Americans are ignorant, and when I say this, I mean ignorant that people are simply uninformed about what is going on outside the borders, not that they are dumb. I can't say I blame them. When you are told the world is scary, why would you want to care about it? Why would you want to go to places where they want to kill you? The result is that Americans don't put an emphasis on learning about the world. We don't learn a second language, we don't enroll in overseas programs, we don't have a travel culture, we don't do gap years, and we don't talk about our world in schools. Our schools teach one foreign language: Spanish, and that is only because we have a large Spanish speaking population in the country. Moreover, as education budgets continue to get slashed, humanity courses are usually the first to be cut from curriculum. This means that people learn very little about world history. In some states, the whole world has to be explained in one year.
The media doesn't focus on the world except if it relates to something bad and our politicians encourage us to erect walls not break down barriers. Additionally, surveys show that news agencies devoted only 10.3% to foreign coverage in 2008 (source) while oddly, 13% went to some polygamy case in Texas. We barely know anything about geography. Americans are simply not told about the world or clamoring to know about it.
In May, violence broke out in Thailand. I remember seeing it as front-page news in Europe and on CNN International. There was a small hyperlink at the bottom of the page on CNN US and Fox News. Lindsey Lohan was the number one news story that month. Again. We are more concerned with our celebrities than world events. Let's talk about Kim Kardashian instead of the EU debt crisis or Brazil's effort to clean up its slums.
The sad irony of all of this is that we created the world we are so afraid of. America's push for a globalized world brought many players onto the world stage. It helped the Chinese dragon emerge from its cage, it brought India into the game, helped Brazil, and tore down communism. We championed globalization, technology, and freedom around the world. Now that we helped foster that, we don't know what to do. Now, we look at the world and we're scared that we no longer understand our place in it. Instead of trying to learn more, we erect barriers, play to xenophobic fears, and bury our head in the sand.
I am hopeful though. The future of the world requires more integration, and it requires more young Americans who -- growing up in this post 9/11 environment -- are more interested in learning about other countries than shunning then. I think the future will be bright so long as political leaders don't wall us off completely before then.
Follow Matt Kepnes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nomadicmatt